As you may have noticed over time I don’t do reviews, though it might be more accurate to say that I don’t do those often. The primary reason is of course that this blog is not about books, but ideas – whether good or bad is another matter. There is however another one which I’m almost ashamed to confess here: reviews require telling people what the reviewed book is about, and I’m hopeless at summaries. Copy-pasting the blurb may help, but not in my case as most of the books I read have no blurbs – they’re from a time when publishers didn’t see the point. So I don’t do reviews unless the book is really an important one – and it seems to me that The Mountain Cat Murders fits the bill. Also, praise the Lord, there is a blurb that I can copy here:
It was spring, and one young woman’s fancy turned to thoughts of murder…
Delia Brand talked too much. She had publicly announced her intention to kill a man, and had even asked her lawyer how to go about it.
No one took Delia seriously until they found the man dead – a bullet in his chest and the gun in her hand. Who would believe she was innocent? And was she?
Rex Stout is a writer I’ve had a complex relationship with, having several issues with his work and repeatedly voicing them including on this blog. I just didn’t « get » him. Then I finally saw the light (or surrendered, depending on your point of view) last year when I read and thoroughly enjoyed In the Best Families, admittedly one of the most atypical entries in the Nero Wolfe canon. It ended being one of my Top 10 reads of 2018, something no other book of his had ever achieved and it’s likely the book I’m discussing here will rank even higher when I’m doing my 2019 survey.
The Mountain Cat Murders is as atypical as Families, but for a different reason: neither Nero Wolfe or Archie Goodwin do appear and the book is written in third person. Also it is not a detective story. There is indeed a puzzle but a detective story requires both an investigator and an investigation and the book has neither until close to the end. This is one of those transitional mysteries that appeared at the tail of the canonical Golden Age, with a foot in tradition and the other in a still burgeoning new genre, suspense.
What’s most impressive about the book is the writing and the characterization. That Stout could write is not big news as it was already evident from the Nero Wolfe books – and sometimes distracting. The difference here is that we get to hear his actual voice, not Archie Goodwin’s and while both have a lot in common they also display some crucial differences. Rex is every bit as wisecracking and skeptical of authority than Archie but also much more compassionate and at times sentimental – though it might be argued that so is Archie, hard as he tries to hide it. He also proves to be maybe the finest dialogue writer the genre ever had, once again something we had a glimpse of in the Nero Wolfe books but here freed from the occasional theatricality of the Wolfe-Goodwin banters – Stout, while notoriously skeptical of movies, seems to have written the book with an eye on the silver screen and as I read it I often found myself « casting » famous actors of the time as the main characters.
Stout never made it a secret that he fashioned the Nero Wolfe series after the Sherlock Holmes canon, and in both cases the most interesting and fleshed-out characters are the detective and his sidekick, assuming the latter word really fits such a commanding presence as Archie’s. This is not to say that the supporting cast is sacrificed or cardboard figures but they take a backseat to the « dynamic duo ». This is especially true of the women in the stories which while assertive and certainly no weak females nevertheless play second fiddle, with Lily Rowan being a notable yet lonely exception. I was thus surprised at how convincingly Stout writes from a female point of view in Mountain Cat and how complex and interesting the women in the book are. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it a feminist book, but Stout treats his female characters in a much more enlightened way than most of his contemporaries, reminding one that he also fathered Dol Bonner and gave her her own book to shine in. The romance between Delia and Ty Dillon is refreshingly unconventional, even though the outcome is never in doubt. Also refreshing is the book’s absence of manicheism – even the murderer is not (quite) a monster and Stout while not forgiving them still allows them to voice their reasons.
But what about the puzzle, some of my readers will ask? Stout is often taken to task by purists for his plotting, which clearly was neither his forte or his main concern. He still could be a more than adequate plotter when he chose to, and Mountain Cat is evidence of that. While the plot is more complex than usual with him, the solution is actually pretty and admirably simple and the only one that makes sense in retrospect – and yet I was fooled almost until the end. Another complaint about Stout’s plotting, namely that he didn’t play fair, doesn’t hold water here either – for Stout while delaying some clues hides none of them and even puts one literally in plain sight. (I won’t say more, you’ll have to read the book to see what I mean)
The book is also extremely funny but that’s par for the course with Stout. You won’t forget the way information is coaxed from a particularly hostile witness or the psychology student’s testimony. Upon closing it however Mountain Cat leaves one with two questions that will probably be forever without clear answers. The first one is about its reputation, or lack of thereof. It is one of Stout’s least famous and commented works and often dismissed as minor stuff – I hope this review partly corrected that view. The second one is about its place in Stout’s oeuvre – a transition work that actually transitioned to nothing as Stout came back to Nero Wolfe and the formula that brought him success and fame. This makes Mountain Cat the Stout equivalent of The Hollow or even more accurately The Emperor’s Snuff Box – a wonderful exception that hints at something that would never be. No one can complain that more Nero Wolfe stories came after that, as some of the best entries in the series were yet to come, but it’s sad that the promises in this book wouldn’t or couldn’t be kept.